Thomas Ahern lays down an impressive marker for year ahead in Munster victory
A hugely encouraging performance in a feisty inter-pro.
Imagine tossing lineout throws, in training, against a defensive unit that includes Tadhg Beirne, Peter O'Mahony and Thomas Ahern. It would be enough to give some hookers sleepless nights.
In Beirne and O'Mahony, Munster already possess two demons when it comes to disrupting the opposition lineouts, and outright stealing possession back. Thomas Ahern was playing his 11th senior game for Munster, but Saturday night was the date he really came to the party.
The 21-year-old lock has been touted as a top prospect for a few years now, and he was one of Munster's best performers in an overall 6/10 team outing against a 5/10 Ulster. Ahern and Tadhg Beirne were the best players in a red jersey on a rain-soaked, bitterly cold night in Limerick.
The Ireland U20 star, like his team, got off to a shaky start as Ulster came out with a point to prove. Dan McFarland's side have been a mix of unstoppable and ordinary in their outings, this season, and it looked as though we were getting the former after viewing the opening exchanges.
With six minutes on the clock, Ahern was pinged for not releasing after making a tackle inside his 22. Ulster boldly kicked for touch and were rewarded when Rob Herring crashed over from a rolling maul to score. It would get better for Ahern and Munster, but not before it got worse.
Thomas Ahern steps up in massive defensive effort
7-0 down after 14 minutes, Munster were soon a man down after Simon Zebo was red-carded for a shoulder to the head of Ulster fullback Mike Lowry. There was no malice to Zebo's action, just going a fraction to high on a player that was coming back to earth after fielding a high ball.
Ulster lost John Cooney to injury, after 24 minutes, and conceded the next two scores - Jack Crowley penalties - to let Munster back in. During hat period, Ahern stepped up with a couple of big carries, one of which led Premier Sports commentator Mark Robson to declare:
"Off goes Thomas Ahern. It's taking a lot of white shirts to stop him, the gangly Munster second row!"
There was another strong Ahern carry, just before Crowley kicked in behind the Ulster lines. The hosts would leave the red zone with another Crowley penalty. Nathan Doak extended Ulster's lead, just before half-time but the visitors had already been dragged into a mano a mano slug-fest that was right down Munster's alley.
Early in the second half and Ulster were looking to put some distance between themselves and Munster on the scoreboard. They won an attacking lineout five metres from the Munster line and you knew they had another rolling maul in mind.
Ahern had other ideas. Jumping against Kieran Treadwell, fresh from the Ulster bench, it wasn't even a contest. Over on Twitter, Three Red Kings perfectly described the Waterford native as'The Slim Reaper'.
It was Munster's 21st lineout steal of the United Rugby Championship season. Once again, Robson summed it up perfectly from the commentary booth:
"Don't throw it to where the 6-foot-9 guy is!"
Munster produce another stirring comeback
A second Doak penalty made it 13-6, but Munster were still clinging on. Handling conditions were tricky, due to the rain, but one wondered why Ulster did not stretch the 14-man side by holding their width, and using it too.
As it was, Ahern and his teammates were sinking tackles [he made 13, and missed none] and driving Ulster back. They were staying in the fight. When Treadwell was sent to the sin-bin, Johann van Graan's men pounced. Like Ulster, they went straight up the middle for a number of phases but Craig Casey took the risk and flung a pass out wide that put Mike Haley over for the try.
That score went unconverted and, strange as it may read, that was bad news for Ulster. It meant Munster kept ploughing forward. Jack O'Donoghue replaced Ahern after his strong 65-minute outing and Beirne stepped up to the second row for the final push.
Treadwell returned to restore Ulster to 15 men for the final 10 minutes but Beirne was a man on a mission now. It was his 30th birthday and he was determined to celebrate it with a win. There was an accidental crossing that spoiled an Ulster attack, but you felt the next score was always going to be Munster's.
It took a while but Munster finally got over with four minutes to play, through Alex Kendellen, another promising young forward. Ben Healy converted, meaning Ulster could not snatch victory with a three-pointer. As it was, they never got close enough to seriously threaten a score of any worth.
Whoever comes in next, after Bath-bound Johann van Graan, will inherit a team that are far from perfect but one that has incredible fighting spirit and a clutch of top young talent.